“The Man in the Red Beret,” Part 2
I dropped in at his World Chess Table several more times for follow up questions and to clarify certain details. Sometimes when I sat down it would seem like I was joining him mid-sentence, as if he’d played through the moment in his mind and I was a few seconds late.
We had originally agreed that the departure point for our conversation would be Frank Brady’s Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall–from America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (Crown, 2011), which Jude hewed to. He spent three days with Fischer in Baton Rouge and New Orleans in 1964 when they were 19 and 21 years old, respectively. (Jude lost twice to Fischer and they drew in a seven hour long simultaneous exhibition; they also played many speed games). Jude has written about the three days he spent with Fischer in “Hurricane I” and “Hurricane II,” which were published in John Donaldson’s A Legend on the Road: Bobby Fischer’s 1964 Simul Tour, 2nd ed. (Russell Enterprises, Inc., 2005). (Jude has given me permission to make a PDF available of Hurricane I & II; the download link is at the end of this post.)
Brady’s book, despite being a delight to read and marvelous at repairing the reputation of Bobby’s mother Regina, omits entirely Fischer’s 1964 “Simul Tour,” which Jude contends is a serious omission given that tour happened at a peak of Fischer’s fame following his shocking 11-0 victory at the U.S. Championship and “is the central image that America got of Fischer at his best when his mind was working properly.” The tour brought Fischer to more than 40 cities over four months, from Montreal in February to Baton Rouge and New Orleans in March, from San Francisco in April to Indianapolis and Flint in May.
According to Donaldson, for $250 Fischer would play 50 players simultaneously and deliver a lecture. The lecture in New Orleans, Jude said, was “not just good, (but) tremendous.” Jude learned from Fischer in developing his own approach to lecturing.
It’s no surprise we returned to Fischer many times in our conversations. Fischer’s impact on chess in the United States cannot be overstated; leading up to his Championship match with Boris Spassky 1972, Fischer sometimes bumped Watergate as the top story on network TV news broadcasts.
Russell Miller promoted Jude’s tours for about 6 years in the 1970s, from 1970 to 1976, and in an email recently summed up the conventional wisdom: As went Fischer, so went U.S. chess:
If Fischer had kept playing after he won the world title it would have been a lot better for chess and Jude Acers.
Jude agrees to a point. Fischer certainly was good for business–when Fischer competed against Spassky for the world title in 1972, Sam Donaldson with ABC-TV flew into Atlanta to interview Jude at a prison where he was giving an exhibition.
But Jude wasn’t counting on Fischer to catch fire; Jude would’ve done his Greyhound chess tours regardless:
I was on Greyhound buses, traveling from one town to another, playing for $200 a night, $100 a night, maybe $300. I had no idea that Fischer was ever going to get his act together and actually play. He was ahead in a tournament in 1967, 3 points, and he just quit the tournament. Look, I wished Fischer well, he was very nice to me in Baton Rouge for three days and three nights, but it never occurred to me that I would actually be helped by Fischer.
I had no idea that no other person after me would ever have this chance because the buses don’t even go to many of those towns anymore. But you understand, I was seeing America and not realizing–like Jack Kerouac–like no other American chess master would ever get to see America again. The small towns, the little places. Not being dumb, I would purposefully stop, I would ask them for ‘the longest ticket you’ve got. If you’ve got 20 stops going to San Francisco, that’s better than 10.’ He said, ‘Well, it’s illegal but okay, I’ll book you zigzag all across the country, who’s going to care?’ … I rode several hundred buses and trains. I crossed the country five times in one year, and there were unbelievable experiences, just unbelievable …
And as much as Jude admires Fischer as a player, especially for how doggedly Fischer studied chess and his honesty as a player, he pulled no punches with Fischer the man:
And remember, I do not like Fischer at all, despite that he treated me very well. I will give away this book [Brady’s biography] very soon to a friend. But I insist he is the most important professional player who ever lived. No one is even close.
What is it you don’t like about him?
Oh, everything. The way he could not do business, just against all my ethics. I don’t like him because of his unbelievable profanity on radio; one doesn’t use profanity on the radio. I don’t like him for his statements against women, his incredible, convenient condemnation of Jews, when it’s convenient for him but associating with many Jews who helped him when it counts. I don’t like, basically, his visa stupidity [Fischer was arrested in Japan and spent 8 months in jail for a visa violation]. He knows if he stays in one place he can live out his life, with his money, why would you operate on a visa that is highly suspect twice a year going to different countries? I don’t like basic stupidity, presenting the Japanese and the United States with a problem they really don’t want. I don’t like his basic attitude in dealing with the Los Angeles Police Department or the police officers who arrested him, who were his jailers, who didn’t know anything about chess but have since learned chess and become motorcycle enthusiasts and rode to my chess table three decades later, told me Fischer would not cooperate, kicking and screaming, would not tell people who he was. He (looked) like a bank robber, they brought in a bank robber that night and he would not supply any ID and perhaps he was mistreated but he walked out of there alive and was able to function comfortably. Above all I do not like the fact that he bummed off friends (while he had a) million dollar escrow, his treatment of his mother and sister I don’t like …
So, in failing to put himself in a position where he could do comfortable business, he violates all my rules because … he basically failed to acknowledge what was true, basic working ability, basic visas, basic common sense which is spelled out to you by doctors and your friends, and your sister and your mother, have to be listened to. And I blame him for everything he did to himself, including his death. He violates all of my basic instincts. My message to Fischer would be: ‘The Jewish people need all the help they can get, the Palestinian people need all the help they can get. I like black people, I like Indians, I like white people, I like homosexuals, I like transgender people, I like every kind of person, more power to everybody. I want everybody to get a break, including me. And any signification of inferiority–I’m better than you are–is a bad mistake in today’s world.’
What follows is a biographical portrait of Jude, emphasizing crucial (frequently cinematic) moments in Jude’s life while quoting liberally from our conversations, as well as from Jude’s writings, which I will link to whenever possible. I’ll present Jude’s thoughts on a wide array of topics, including Bobby Fischer, the U.S. Chess Federation, why he sidestepped the world of cutthroat chess, what it was like to live four blocks from Fillmore West in 1968, his Greyhound bus chess tours of the country in the 1970s, his advice for how to stay sharp and fit, and his preparations for the World Senior International tournament in Opatija, Croatia coming up in November.
“On Paper, I’m an Orphan”
Jude Frazier Acers was born April 6, 1944 in Long Beach, California. Jude’s father was a football player at Notre Dame under Knut Rockne and a Marine in World War II, with the bullet scars on the calf of his leg to prove it, and an alcoholic. The family moved from California to Hawaii to North Carolina. Jude’s mother was a drug addict who died in a plane crash on the way to an asylum when he was three years old. Only about ten years ago was he shown a picture of her.
But then you have the baffling thing that is unexplainable. All across the country and when I traveled across the Northwest, Seattle, northern California, several couples came up to me, ‘Jude, when you were a little boy we held you as a baby.’ My mother, who was by all accounts a drug addict, before she would go on her binge she would always get me to safety. And I just never seem to have really traumatic memories, World War II or anything, I think somehow she did a pretty good job of taking care of me before she was killed.
At four the police found him and his sister rummaging through garbage in Newburgh, New York. Jude remembers little.
There’s only one thing I remember when I was two or three or four years old. I remember a ship, a monstrous battleship in the distance, in the fog, I must have been two or three. That’s all I remember. And I remember also my mother, I didn’t know my mother was a drug addict but somehow my mother was taking care of me, and I remember we were going somewhere and the cab went down these long streets, I remember that, and strangely, I remember my being lifted upside down by my father or mother and given some kind of bath, I hope they weren’t sexually molesting me or whatever, but they were bathing me. I don’t remember any pain. But I remember being given a bath of some kind, held by my feet, it could’ve just been normal cleaning. It’s all I remember. I remember it for five, ten seconds.
At five years old, while living in an orphanage (his father was fighting in the war), he came across a book about chess and began to play the game with soda bottle caps as pieces. The nuns would take them away, and he would gather more.
His father had a penchant for shaving young Jude’s head and he once knocked Jude down in an alcoholic stupor, but generally all he offered was silence. Or at least that’s what Jude emphasized with me. In a piece he wrote in 1974 that glanced back at his childhood, he wrote of chess helping “you survive even when your father is beating you to a bloody pulp. Chess is that wonderful for the mind, a pure narcotic.” And five paragraphs later Jude made explicit his intent to leave it behind:
Little by little, I am forgetting the bad breaks. I do not hate anymore.
Jude’s father remarried and moved the family to Louisiana, where he worked as a law clerk in downtime New Orleans, though it seems he ran into difficulties related to his unfamiliarity with the Napoleonic Code. Jude went to several schools in the New Orleans area, including Kenner Junior High and Gentilly Terrace Elementary. His family lived for a time at the Mirabeau Apartments and in fifth grade Jude was the “weirdo in the back.” His teacher, Miss Eagan, regarded him with disdain until he won a spelling bee (against 29 girls). The next day, she beckoned him with her finger to her desk and handed him an unsealed letter. She told him to deliver it to the principal’s office.
I ran across the green, a hundred yards, to the principal’s office. Naturally, she knew I’d open the letter and read it, and I read, ‘Mr. Morgan, I was wrong about this remarkable, talented and brilliant individual. Signed, Miss Eagan. Please disregard everything I ever said. He is extraordinary.’ I gave it to the principal and I ran back and I just sat in the class and didn’t even move. I was very properly behaved and began to be overly courteous from that moment on. She changed my life.
Jude grew increasingly interested in chess and wrote letters with chess problems or questions to famous chess columnists such as Horowitz (who took to calling him “Judee,” even listing the 9-year-old “Judee” as a correspondent on the masthead of Chess Review), Hans Kmoch, Larry Evans and Jack Collins. As a 12 year old his family lived in Harahan and Jude began to take the hour and a half bus ride to New Orleans, then the streetcar to the chess club at the Lee Circle YMCA. He wasn’t yet a strong player and the other players at the chess club ignored him, probably not wanting to bother with a kid. (Jude hasn’t forgotten these players–to this day, he will not allow them to sit at his chess board.)
About the fifth or sixth time he went to the club that summer, sad, nobody willing to play him as usual, without a dime for a Coke, thinking about that dime he didn’t have, reduced to surveying the scene through a couple empty Coke bottles as a kind of “kaleidoscope self made entertainment,” and a man he hadn’t seen before wearing a grimy Pelican Plumbing Supply uniform called out from across the room: “Hey, young man, would you like to play a game of chess?”
Adrian L. McAuley, the first officially rated chess master in New Orleans history. (Morphy played before ratings.) He would win the Louisiana State Chess Championship nine times from 1955 to 1972. A graduate of Alcee Fortier High Schoool and Soule College, McAuley was a sergeant in the Army Air Corps during World War II. His chess pieces were made of wood, 6-8 inches tall, triple weighted, and his board, also made of wood, had green and white squares. “Anything less, young man, would positively not be civilized.” He promptly check-mated Jude twice, and each time instantly replayed the game from memory to provide improvement tips.
Around midnight, the other players and janitor already gone, the lights out. “Well, young man, how about a draw, a tie?”
“Sure, Mr. McAuley.”
McAuley bought Jude a Coke and walked him to the streetcar stop, then climbed into his “ramshackle falling-apart-on-St.-Charles-Avenue-cloud dusting truck” and drove off in the rain. Across the street a Slim Harpo song blared from a gas station radio.
“There’ll be no reason to cry …”
“I’ve always been alone and I like it that way”
A couple years later, when he was 14, Jude arranged for himself to be declared a ward of the state of Louisiana. A police detective who was investigating a robbery at the church where Jude served as an alter boy came by Jude’s house to talk to him. The officer, struck by Jude’s father’s manner or Jude’s longing to be away, took Jude out back. “Jude, let me ask you about this. You seem a strange little boy, tell me about your father a bit.”
The officer also asked, “What do you do here?” Jude answered, “I just stay in the house. I never go out or talk to anyone. My father and I don’t ever talk.”
The officer suggested to Jude he might prefer going to a school in Mandeville, noting there was a nice library over there. “You’ll have to get out of here. You can do it gracefully, I don’t want to upset anyone.”
Jude agreed, arrangements were made.
My parents were totally unaware that I was setting the whole thing up. I had to have some kind of psychiatric evaluation, so I went down and sat for half an hour, an hour, in quiet, and I’m sure they were watching me with TV cameras, but I was very calm, because I knew I’d talked to the police detective, and he was working with my father, too, I don’t think that my father realized I was more than willing to go, and then as I was leaving, when the ambulance came to get me for the school/hospital thing, where I would go to school in town and just live in Mandeville and I’d go to the chess club by the hospital … I don’t think (my parents) realized—actually, we never talked about where I was going. My father opened the door and said, ‘Jude, they’ve come for you and they’re going to take you to Mandeville.’ Then he stepped out in the hall and I looked up at him and said, ‘It’s okay, it’s okay.’ I didn’t want him to feel hurt or anything, but he had no idea I was never coming back. I knew that it was dangerous. That he had completely lost it.
Jude would never see his father again. About ten years after his father died someone got his wallet to Jude. In it was the picture of Jude’s mother he hadn’t seen before.
Basically my father died with press clippings about my books, my book Grandmaster Chess which the Los Angeles Times reviewed, he had it in his wallet with my name circled, they found it on him when he died, and he died screaming out my name [summer 1978]. He’d been dead about 60 days when I was told about it. I didn’t want to bring his body back to New Orleans [from California]. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it … He left a hundred thousand dollars to the Catholic nuns, he disinherited all my family because he knew they would give me money, not that I wanted the money, but the people in my family tree, who I would rather not talk about, were good people, but I was just estranged from the family. I went my way and they went theirs my teenage years. I always lived alone. Not that I in any way dislike my family, but I’ve always been alone and I like it that way … I don’t like birthday parties, I don’t like giving out Christmas gifts. I like to have a cup of coffee, play the radio, go over chess, take a two mile walk and enjoy the wonderful people of New Orleans, see bands. Different strokes for different folks. I want everyone to have an enormous break and be happy.
Several times Jude told me if he had to do it all over again, he’d pick the same parents. The refrain was always: “They did they best they could.” “I’d never change parents.”
And if he did it over again with the same parents, he would surely leave again.
I understand, when I left, my family never dreamed I was never going to come back again. Ever. Not that I hated them, or disliked them, I had just found a new world. It’s something people can do. You hear about this occasionally in actual life. A man is married with three children. He has several hundred thousand dollars in his bank account. He takes a hundred thousand, leaves the rest, all the credit cards and the home, and disappears. He is just unhappy with the situation. Leaves all of his money to his wife and children and goes to a new world. It has happened. Police all around the country are familiar with it. Occasionally they find the person and they tell him, ‘Oh, please, just let them alone,’ and the police, by law, are not allowed to reveal a person’s (whereabouts) if they haven’t committed a crime. And they keep the privacy and the man tells them, ‘Look, I’m all right, I want them to have everything and good luck to them, I’ve gone my own way.’ Within reason, you know. It’s happened. It doesn’t happen every year … (That’s) exactly how I felt. Look, I don’t feel negative, I’m just glad there’s this beautiful race track for this great thoroughbred horse to run on and there’s nobody else on the track but me. I was already a very good public speaker. I knew I could give good chess lectures. And I just knew things were going to work out for me.
For his high school years Jude lived at a hospital in Mandeville. And it felt like freedom.
You know, I was so independent, reading chess books and so on, going to school in town–and also, another thing, very important, I loved to dance. Oh, I was manic, I loved the women. I would dance with the girls, and they were very nice to me, but I was always ‘that weird Jude,’ I’m sure, but I was the Salutatorian at Mandeville High School, and so on. But then I would ride the bus back to the little hospital there, but there was never any problem. Although once, when I was just running for exercise, they ran after me thinking I was running away and they took me back, and he said, ‘No, that’s Jude.’ By that time they knew (me), I was a pretty famous chess player, there’d been articles in the newspaper, but I in general realized I was being very well taken care of and if I learned to live by myself, read, I’d have a chance, and I knew I could go to Louisiana State University on a need scholarship. It saved my life. But also, the key thing I want you to emphasize, the girls at the dances at Mandeville High School were very important. I danced with the girls and it was very nice, and just little things like that (lifted his spirits).
He also indulged his dance mania at the long gone La Casa de Los Marinos near Jax Brewery in the French Quarter:
Because I looked old for my age I could sneak in to the greatest bar of all time in New Orleans history, the greatest bar, no bar ever touched it. Ask anybody and they will tell you. It was open twenty-four hours a day, it was across from the Jax Brewery, nothing touched it. It’s where Walgreens is now, right by Jackson Square. It was called La Casa, The House, La Casas. No bar even touched it. It rocked beyond belief. In the front was Spanish music and Spanish dancers, seven days a week, with a juke box. In the mid-section also was some Spanish and some American music on a second jukebox. But on weekends, a third back bar was opened with a jukebox of all American rock and roll. And women danced on the tables. These were just normal college students who came. La Casas was the greatest bar anywhere in the world. … in the front the Spanish drums were there. Anybody could bring drums and play along with the jukebox. And the women were hot. The Spanish women were hot, did Salsa, everything. Man, it was unbelievable. In addition, your high class, high grade lady of the night would bring their millionaires in there. They would sneak them in. And you would see people at five-thirty in the morning, as I was going back to catch the hospital limousine from the Café du Monde, you’d see a fabulous woman in a green dress with a sixty year old man in an elegant suit and you could pretty well size up the situation that this was a secret liaison … That’s where I heard a record that followed me around for twenty years. I never knew the name of it. It was in all french. It was called “Je T’aime”. It was the only million selling record Gainsbourg ever did. It was done with Brigette Bardot [this version was recorded in 1967 but not released until 1986] and Birken [released in 1969] and all it is is organ music, unbelievably beautiful organ music and they’re talking to each other in the background. It gets really intense.
When Jude was 16 or 17, probably because he didn’t drink or do drugs and was ever reliable, the hospital allowed him to “go wherever (he) wanted.”
They let me travel 2,000 miles to the U.S. Junior, they got me a ticket and I just got on the bus and went and played in the United States Junior Championship. There’s a photograph in the Dayton newspaper of a bald headed Jude Acers playing Robin Ault, U.S. Junior Champion in round one. It’s a tremendous photograph. Oh, the greatest photograph ever taken of me was in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. I’m playing Milas Momic, a tremendous player, went to the U.S. Open. Little Jude Acers, a little kid, has traveled by Greyhound bus to play in Memphis, TN, and Acers in the distance in his suit and tie, approaching the board, still pretty tall for my age, and Momic is (getting ready to play me), the great master. And cigarette smoke is going up to the ceiling and I am in the middle of the smoke and it was on the front page of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
“If he can’t play, I’m not playing”
At the Texaco in Mandeville Jude made it a point to drink from the colored water fountain. And on the streetcar in New Orleans he would sometimes toss the colored sign out the window, or he would sit in the colored section.
Well, I didn’t know squat. I just thought it strange, but I didn’t understand that black people were lynched, they were massively discriminated against. I did find it strange there were no black people in St. Regis Church in Harahan. That seemed strange. But I just didn’t put two and two together, I had a lot to learn.
In 1962, when Jude was 18 years old, he rode with McAuley to a chess tournament in Natchez, Mississippi. McAuley had paid Jude’s entry fee, as was his custom. Ahead of Jude in line at the Natchez hotel was William Scott III. It was the first time Jude met Scott and they would become lifelong friends (Scott, for example, helped “save” a couple of Jude’s Atlanta exhibitions in the early 1970s). In 1954, Scott had not been allowed to play at the U.S. Open chess tournament held in New Orleans because he was black. In 1945, Scott had served as an army photographer–a Reconnaissance Sgt. with the 183rd Engineer Combat Battalion–and documented [link behind free registration wall] the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. Scott was also editor of the Atlanta Daily World. Behind Scott in line was Milan Momic. Formerly of Yugoslavia, Momic was an Alabama state champion.
“I’m sorry, sir, but the hotel will not admit you. Black players are not allowed in the tournament.”
“Why can’t he play?” asked McAuley, still in his Pelican Plumbing Supply uniform. “If he can’t play, I’m not playing.” He turned and walked out of the hotel.
“If McAuley’s not playing, I’m not going to play.” Jude turned to walk out.
“They no play, no me.” Momic followed.
Jude is ever quick to praise McAuley:
There is no one in Louisiana (chess) history, bar none, that touches–especially (Paul) Morphy–McAuley in class in terms of real world class manner. Morphy had many idiosyncrasies, he did not treat people well in many occasions, and did not fulfill professional contracts. McAuley was strictly by the book.
Room 104, Graham Hall, Louisiana State University
Jude went to LSU in Baton Rouge on a state need scholarship. After the state hospital, 104 Graham Hall felt like a palace. It only got better when his roommate flunked out his sophomore year.
As much as Jude felt a sense of liberation in college, he also fought a fierce loneliness that he would remember later in his writings. He wrote of being rolled in Baton Rouge:
Three hoodlums hold you up and dump you in a ditch in a bad news neighborhood. They take your shoes, wallet, and papers. By a miracle, you are unharmed as they drive away, leaving you with the $154 in your left pants’ pocket. You are laughing hysterically at this irony, but still must wind your way out of the sticks at 3 a.m.
And of taking “incredible chances to have a ‘good time,’” such as “in lily-white Louisiana” going to see Otis Redding perform three nights in a row at a black night club and walking home along a super highway at night, exposing him to the abuses of “fraternity guys who tried to run me over“:
But I dodged and their car stalled in the mud alongside the road. I grabbed a loose board, ripped it from a gate and advanced like Hannibal on the terrified occupants. Then I put out every window in their car as they watched incredulously, with me screaming ‘Ko-Wan-Ko! Ko-Wan-Ko!’ a voodoo chant which I made up on the spot.
Afterward, I stepped back and bowed gracefully. ‘You may now leave or die,’ I said. While cursing insanely, the driver did manage to get the car going again and peeled off in the the Louisiana night, leaving me, as before, alone. The Bee Gees were playing on their car radio while all this was going on …
Professors who had an impact on Jude included George Putnam, a Russian History professor, who broke the news about Stalin. He fondly remembers T. Harry Williams, Huey Long biographer and Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner. Another professor made the Holocaust come into focus:
‘Professor, you say that the people in towns outside the death camps knew what was going on—sir, these were in top secrecy, I mean millions of people were killed in these camps but the people outside didn’t seem to know what was going on.’ And the professor, seventy years old, looks over and says, ‘Well, Mr. Acers, it’s like this: When you burn several hundred thousand people a month, it’s in the air, you can smell the bodies.’ Oh. Oh!
In late March 1964, a couple weeks before Jude’s 20th birthday, Bobby Fischer, who’d just turned 21 a couple weeks earlier (and declared 4F for the draft–medically disqualified), landed at the airport in New Orleans. Just three months earlier Fischer had won the U.S. Championship by an unprecedented 11-0. Here’s how Frank Brady describes the moment in Endgame:
The incredible final score was picked up by the wire services and sent by radio, newspapers, and television throughout the world: eleven championship games, eleven wins. At this level of competition, such a streak wasn’t suppose to happen, no matter how adept a given player might be. Fischer’s first prize for his two weeks of intensity and brilliance was just $2,000.
The non-chess media gave the tournament far more attention than usual, though they’d never been sure whether chess was a sport or an art. Life and the Saturday Evening Post arranged to interview Bobby. Sports Illustrated headlined its story THE AMAZING VICTORY STREAK OF BOBBY FISCHER.
Fischer was eight years away from being World Champion, and looking back it’s easy to assume it must have been obvious that Fischer was poised to become World Champion. But not necessarily so.
It’s extremely important to realize, number one, I never dreamed that I was talking to a (future) World Chess Champion because I already knew that he had dropped out of a match (in 1961), forfeiting ten thousand dollars while he was not losing, he was tied, with Samuel Reschevsky in Los Angeles. After game 11 he’d missed an easy win and was so angry he said that he didn’t want to play in the morning. And after eleven games he forfeited $10,000 and Reschevsky won the match by forfeit … I knew that he rarely played and I knew you would have to play for about three or four years in a row on schedule to win the world title. I never dreamed that special exceptions would be made for him. So you need to understand, although he was wonderful to me, he’d just won the U.S. Championship 11-0, which to this day is his greatest achievement, a much greater achievement than beating (Tigran) Petrosian (in 1971), his greatest match victory in my opinion, he beats Petrosian, a match that practically killed him in Buenos Aires to qualify for the world title, and then beating Spassky, who he had never won a single game in his life from. (Fischer) had never even beaten a reigning world champion before Reykjavik in the (1972) world title match. And make no mistake, he is the best player in the world, but to get a world title match I never dreamed he would be able to play consistently for even one or one and a half years, much less four, which is what happened.
To be fair, also contributing to Fischer’s forfeit to Reschevsky was the fact that the match start times were being shifted around to suit a wealthy tournament sponsor as opposed to the players. The next couple years would see Fischer pull back from competitive play to an extent before making his World Championship run.
Jude’s friend Don Wagner, a chess promoter and attorney, raced from Baton Rouge to New Orleans to pick Fischer up at the airport, trying to get to Fischer before some New Orleans chess heads. Wagner found Fischer playing pinball at the airport and brought him back to his house in Baton Rouge. Wagner picked up Jude and then pranked him by saying they needed to hurry to the New Orleans airport to get Fischer. Wagner then spilled hot coffee on his lap and said they had to make a pit stop to get a new pair of slacks. While Wagner went inside, Jude waited “outside in a posture of prayer,” when a moment later
Fischer, the world’s youngest chess grandmaster, stuck his head out of the Wagner screen door and said ‘Hello, Jude.’
Jude spent the next three days with Fischer, first in Baton Rouge, where they shot pool at the Old Chimes Street billiard hall, then in New Orleans. In Baton Rouge, Fischer defeated five LSU students live on Baton Rouge Channel 9 TV. Jude served as a color commentator alongside longtime “voice of the LSU Fighting Tigers” John Ferguson. The program ran again twice that week and was erased for a car commercial two weeks later.
At no time did I realize how fabulously lucky I was … no other person had an experience like that, ever. A TV program and I’m in the background making comment. The day before I’m interviewing him in my dorm room, I’m playing him a two game match at Don Wagner’s house …
Jude practiced his interview question for Fischer 10 times. Here’s Jude’s account from “Hurricane II”:
‘Bobby, even cursory examination of your career shows fantastic self-improvement. Study? Talent? Written analysis after all your games? I have wondered. Please look back at one specific case for me: Bled/Belgrade/Zagreb 1959 international chess tourney. You lose by six games to the Soviet players, lose all four games to Mikhail Tal. Then like a bomb flash two years to Bled, 1961. Nineteen games. You mow down Tal, (Tigran) Petrosian, plus score the Russians, go undefeated in all 19 rounds. Naked improvement, there it is. Bobby, how does a player do this? Get better while all other players are standing still?‘
Fischer instantly said, ‘Simple. First, learn the chess openings, really learn the ones you play for White and Black. Second, keep the pressure on them every second–they all crack. No exception, play every game to the end, never give up.’
Jude lost both of his games against Fischer at Wagner’s Baton Rouge house:
PLAYING FISCHER A TWO-GAME MATCH: Acers remembers, the crowd was enormous in Wagner’s home. Wall to wall, two games … Remembered best: colored streamers running from Wagner’s air conditioner. As I stepped back watching for Fischer’s quiet, always-the-same-hand-meter moves, I was surrounded by colored paper strips, apparently to show the direction of the air flow. A frame with Fischer in the center. Really incredible.
Sportsmanship. Fischer wanted to be completely sure that I knew my time was running out. I did. Dead lost, I just let it run out quietly.
Ethical conduct is crucial to Jude. For example, he harshly criticizes Morphy for not upholding contractual obligations, such as failing to write a chess column for the duration of the contract. Fischer, for his many faults (about which Jude has much to say), had a sterling reputation for ethical play:
(Chess Grandmaster) William Addison, who knew Fischer very well, said. ‘There were two things about Fischer at the board. He was absolutely honest and would never cheat.’
This is what Addison said. ‘I played him thousands of speed games, I watched him play people all over the country and he’d get like a knight and a bishop and his opponent might have a queen and a pawn, on the rare occasions he got in trouble, and Fischer would just flip over his king in a five minute game and I’d tell Bobby, ‘Look, Bobby, I don’t care what the position is, I don’t care if you’re a rook down, keep playing, if you’ve got two bishops and the other guy has a queen, he’s not going to be able to beat you, even though it’s a win for the queen. Go ahead and play it, you’ll still win on time, you’ll still beat him.’ And Fischer just threw the chess pieces in the center of the board and said, ‘If I can’t win it clean, I don’t want to win it.’ At the board he would die before he would cheat. No one, ever, ever, for one moment, caught Fischer in anything that wasn’t strictly class at the board.
Likewise, Fischer was unfailingly polite and gracious during his stay in Louisiana. He impressed Jude immensely:
On a superficial level, good traits run in bunches. And the physical evidence of Bobby Fischer at his best would be the Dick Cavett Show where for one hour he was interviewed and I simply ask you to look at that, the reactions of the women in the audience to him and so on, at the peak of his fame. And my case will rest …
And now I will tell you what I personally saw. Number one, he traveled with one suit by Greyhound bus, by planes, by train, but mainly by Greyhound bus. He took a plane (in 1964) from Chicago to New Orleans where he was picked up by Don Wagner, the promotional genius … Number one, he had one suit with him, when he traveled he used the same suit all across the country, he had it quickly dry cleaned I’m sure, it fit him perfectly, the guy was absolutely one of the best looking people I’ve ever seen. He was about six feet six, he towered high. He had a tremendously fast walk, a little bit gangly, but I didn’t notice it much because he took short steps, but many other people noticed that he had a gangly walk, but the guy was powerfully built. He had walked many thousands of miles in New York ever since he was seven, eight, ten years old. He was traveling on the subway nine, ten, eleven (at night) by himself to go downtown and play (chess) in the parks.
Now, I want to go into everything he was given. First of all, I would rate him one of the five best looking people I’ve ever seen, really looking good, hair, facial complexion and so on. He was incredibly well behaved and courteous at all times. In the Don Wagner home he stayed there asking to go from room to room, he was very courteous to everyone. I cite as an example of his diplomacy the only live TV program he did on this (1964) tour, where he played live on the air five Louisiana State University students and he was asked point blank by the voice of the Louisiana State Tigers, John Ferguson, the guy you heard for many years calling LSU games, died just recently (2005), ‘Bobby, you’ve been called a high school dropout, what about this?’ I just died on the spot. And Wagner literally turned purple, because this was his great promotional work worth millions which he’d given Baton Rouge and Baton Rouge didn’t even appreciate it.
In New Orleans, Fischer played 75 opponents simultaneously (he won 70, lost 3, and drew 2) at the old YWCA on Gravier Street (one of players to draw against Fischer in New Orleans after seven hours was Jude; one of his vanquished opponents was Orleans Parish District Attorney and JFK assassination theorist Jim Garrison). Fischer offered to do a lecture in New Orleans–he hadn’t been contracted to do one–provided a copy of The Games of Paul Morphy by P.W. Sergeant (1916) could be found, which spurred a fevered and finally successful effort to locate the book, delaying the New Orleans exhibition two hours.
Fischer earned $200 for his Baton Rouge appearance and $485 in New Orleans. And Jude’s draw with Fischer earned him respect in some quarters:
People began to realize, ‘You know, he’s weird but he really likes chess.’ The only person who knew all the way was McAuley. From day one, he knew.
Jude graduated from LSU in 1968 and took a Greyhound bus to a chess tournament in Denver, which he won 7-0. As luck would have it, shortly before graduation Jude received an unsolicited credit card from the Shell Oil Company, which is what got him from Denver to another chess tournament in Marysville, Washington. At the Strawberry Open in Marysville, Jude met grandmaster Larry Evans, Dennis “Fritz the Poet” Fritzinger and Russell Miller. Miller had organized chess tournaments primarily in Washington state up to that point and soon would be booking Jude’s chess tours across the country. Miller served as editor of Northwest Chess and published a short profile of Jude following the Strawberry Open:
Jude came in 9th out of 95 players; Evans went undefeated. Fritzinger convinced Jude to come to San Francisco:
(Fritzinger) brought me to San Francisco, bought me Orange Julius treats, shown me magic Chinese restaurants, where a man can get by on a few pennies.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti would later publish Fritzinger’s poetry.
Using his Shell credit card, Jude paid his way to San Francisco, riding with a postal employee for two days. In San Francisco, Jude stayed with Max Burkett, three blocks from Fillmore West, where over the next two months he would see Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, the Jefferson Airplane, the Vanilla Fudge, the Blue Cheer, Jesse Colin Young and Youngbloods, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. He saw the Rolling Stones at Altamont. Burkett introduced Jude to Joplin at a postal workers’ Thanksgiving party and he ran into her a few more times:
I was at a party and I was the only one who had any clothes on and I had a California Chess Reporter, a couple books and a pocket (chess) set, I’d sit around and drink coffee and so on … I was in the bathtub there and she said, ‘You play with little pieces all day long, and you know what? You’ll live to be an old, old man someday. And here I am.’
Photo credit: Chessdryad.com
About Altamont, Jude wrote in September 1974 :
Are policemen necessary to keep the mad dogs and the gorillas in line? Altamont says yes, Dianne and Berkeley say no. To this day I believe that bus drivers, cab drivers, garbagemen, firemen, newspaper reporters and policemen are the most important, needed people living in the city. To this day, absolutely nobody in the Jude Acers in-crowd agrees with me. Nobody. Not Shig. Not Specs. Not *Supervolk*. Not Ferlinghetti. Not Burkett. Not Fritzinger, (James) Tarjan, (John) Grefe, Karl Bach, Kent Bach, Caradian, Waterman, Mary Lasher or Browne…
Ten blocks from Burkett’s place was the Mechanics’ Institute, a 100 year old chess room where people could walk in off the street and without too much difficulty play a game. To Jude, “It was a miracle.”
The top eight players in the country were coming through Burkett’s house and the Mechanics’ Institute. I knew them all. William Addison, he had 600 days before he would quit chess forever. And I was there every one of those 600 days.
Other players there included John Blackstone, James Tarjan, John Grefe, George Kane, Gilbert Ramirez (who Bobby Fischer once bit–See Brady’s Endgame, p. 73) and six-time U.S. Champion Walter Browne.
It was crawling with people. You won’t find two or three people today of like nature in San Francisco today like that. There were twenty people coming through there—John Hall came in from Texas and was there for two weeks. Unbelievable player. They were coming in there like railroad trains. And I saw them all. Jim Schmidt, Jim McCormick…
Over the next two years, from 1968-1970, Jude played more than 800 clocked games at the Mechanics’ Institute. Jude also began to take his Greyhound bus tours of the country, which he often wrote about in his chess column, published both in the Berkeley Barb, a weekly underground newspaper, and later in Francis Ford Coppola’s short lived magazine called City (Jude says Coppola closed City to make Apocalypse Now).
Jude could travel for two months on Greyhound for about $200 in 1970 (according to The Inflation Calculator, that’s $1,110.27 in 2011 dollars). Miller developed a promotional template that Jude continues to use. In the days leading up to a simultaneous exhibition Miller would book Jude to conduct free exhibitions in schools or prisons to drum up media coverage and increase interest in the paid exhibition.
I did dozens of (prison exhibitions). You do them forty-eight hours before the weekend. All TV stations have a chance to come and do it. It’s in a neutral location. You get public goodwill …
Jude typically gave exhibitions for $100-$300 a night, even as the Fischer boom happened.
All of a sudden, Fischer crushes in Vancouver [in 1971], Canada, Taimanov, a Russian, 6-0. Then goes to Denver four months later and beats [Bent] Larsen [Danish champion] 6-0. It’s never happened in history. He’s now won 12 games in a row and six games and at the Interzonal. He’s now won 18 games in a row. And I’m traveling around the country, the only player in the country off Greyhound busses playing for only $300, not $2,500. About 10,000 people came to an exhibition at the largest mall in the world, Woodfield (near Chicago) … I gave these exhibitions there and [an organizer at the Woodfield Mall] said, ‘Hey, Jude, I hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but you go to all the schools 3 days before, we put you up and we pay your food, but you only charge us $300, why you so cheap?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Miller does it.’ And I had enough sense to let him do it because understand, man, he was a great genius, and he didn’t know what he was doing, he was just did it by instinct. Post cards to all the TV stations announcing my arrival. Two weeks in advance. One week. Five days in advance. We only got $300, enough for the Greyhound bus, whatever. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we were winning.
Things did not always go so swimmingly and it’s clear the chess tours mostly lost money :
The Greyhound slid out of Little Rock and Russell W. Miller of Yakima, Washington had already messed up the Jude Acers tour badly with his only mistake of the year. Miller routed Jude through Indianapolis and misread the schedule. There was no us to get out of Indianapolis, period! You have to fly to Memphis and barely make it to Arkansas on time. You’ve lost a lot of money and can only break even. This is not important, as Miller has gone to the bank 50 times to save your tour. Miller has at least one hundred free passes. He has personally lost $4,000 on your tour to date and will stick with you through thick and thin, while the US Chess Federation and Piatigorsky Chess Foundation refuse to even answer your pleading letters. You are chess in America. They are nothing.
The stresses of the road were many: An Austin promoter got a look at Jude and his long hair and thought he could short him pay, prompting Jude to destroy his hotel telephone. Jude witnessed a murder at a prison and he had to hug the floor and pretend he saw nothing. Prison guards locked him in a room for his own protection for many hours and when they finally let him free, he didn’t know how he would get home because he didn’t have money for bus fare. On a lark he called a millionaire cement contractor who had sponsored a couple chess tournaments in San Francisco, someone he had never even talked to before, and the man promptly flew to pick him up in his monoplane. Still another time, while eating breakfast at a York, Pennsylvania diner, a waitress was attacked by a couple teenagers, prompting Jude to jump up on a table and chuck glass sugar shakers at the men in her defense. At an airport in Pasco, Washington, Jude helped an old man with a package board a plan, then later made the mistake of joking to a flight attendant that he “certainly hope(d)” the box he carried aboard the plane wasn’t “a bomb.” He was booted from the plane and only avoided arrest because the plane’s pilot thought him “a nice chap.”
If you’re going to live like and be an individual, you’ve got to start planning to live by yourself and look out for yourself. And I became much more protective of everything … I realized, be grateful for your health. I could never have survived without the accidents of watching my father drink himself to death. God bless him, he really helped me to learn not to do it. And I watched him smoke himself to death. So I realized, I won’t ever smoke, I won’t ever do dope, I’ll never drink. Simple things. I’m not a moralist.
Jude liked being alone, the performing, seeing new towns:
(Miller) didn’t realize, as I did, when I was rolling into … and making three hundred dollars, so what? I’m the best who ever lived at that kind of work. Presentation, being pleasant to people, doing what you have to do on radio and TV, playing a very fine exhibition. There are many great chess exhibition players but mine are some of the finest … Many people have noticed it, they’re beginning to notice, ‘Well, if Jude Acers is just run of the mill, how come he can play the white pieces or the black pieces, and play a hundred people at one time?’ Fischer always took the white pieces. I’m not saying I’m a better player, a better genius, that I can think better, I just know this: I have a wonderful mind and I’m aware of it.
Even so, Jude often had to scramble to keep fed and from time to time had to rely on chess hustling. “Trophies, the US Chess Federation people, who do not care if a master lives or dies, and the USCF’s mickey-mouse Swiss tournaments would not feed me.” In a 1974 Berkeley Barb column, he described his hustling precepts:
The nature of my hustling ability during 1967-1970 U.S. barnstorming rested on four very significant apples and meant the difference in hard times. By difference I meant EATING.
FIRST, I made it a point to never drink anything, which puts 90 percent of the money games into my wallet post haste. Almost nobody can drink and play 40 moves accurately, especially if they have never once played 40 consecutive humdingers in their lives! Now for that remaining ten percent, hereafter referred to as the points.
SECOND, I get a good eight hours sleep always during the daytime and am playing in the evening hours against people who have been on their feet at least 14 hours before they run into the strong class C opposition (2 points).
(Note: It is astounding that most Swiss system players do not get enough sleep as well! Remember this. It’s worth a lot of money to you!)
THIRD, I never, never, never say a word during a game, which enormously helps a hustler concentrate. Any words tell your opponent what your position looks like to you, that a rook or queen is (en prise) and, most dreadfully, in the case of a stronger, tips that you are trying to hustle him by false encouragement (3 points)!
FOURTH, until Bobby Fischer messed up the hustler scene by tossing forty million new US chessplayers into the pot, it was possible to ‘book’ strong players. Thus in 1970 there were only about 300 names and faces I had to know by studying chess magazines, rating lists and, above all, photographs.
Conserve resources, pick your opponents carefully:
You see, it is an unfortunate fact of life that here is nothing to be gained but starvation from an unofficial ten-hour marathon between two master players in the Coffee Gallery. The only point in playing (in) a US Chess Federation rated tournament … is for blood and national reputation. What is lost, you may wonder, if two players fight it out in the Coffee Gallery?
‘Theoretical knowledge’ is what is in danger, lost. Every good master has his whole ten or twenty move opening system memorized with new moves, something more than is published by theoreticians. Also, you show your future tournament opponent what his weaknesses are in your opinion. These two factors explain why chessmasters never socialize with chess and clocked serious games. You don’t give free goodies away for peanuts, particularly when the study of your opening systems has taken hundreds of hours.
There is no way out. If a strong player shows up at the Coffee Gallery, you don’t play him even if you know you will beat him (unless you’re desperate for money, naturally). It wears you out, gives away a great deal for free, and worst of all, tips off everybody within miles that you are the strongest class C player who ever lived.
But for all the scrapping and near death experiences, he scored incredible victories, like the liberation of “high volume” prostitute, Paula, with whom Jude developed an elaborate system to drop loads of cash through a garbage shoot over many days to secure the $10,000 she needed to escape from her brutal pimp, Celerio. Or the triumph in Augusta, Georgia where Jude gave an exhibition before an enthusiastic and attentive 1,000 people and did loads of press. Or the Helen Gurley Brown recommended “swish-swish-swish” of the nylon sound atomizers that Verne wore when she rescued him at the St. Louis bus station (moments before Jude had dramatically–gallantly–given a stranger his last $350). Verne took him on a slow six day drive to New Jersey. At Verne’s urging, Jude drew by stalemate against her father three times.
“I’m the best you’ve ever seen”
But life on the road wore down even Jude. Fischer forfeited his world title and opportunities began to dry up. It all crystallized in El Paso, Texas, where he was on a layover and had only $15. He was “slightly mentally ill,” his chess rating frozen by the United States Chess Federation, “a little bit depressed but getting it together.”
He left the bus station and crossed the street and came upon a large coffee shop, with a “movie star looking young kid” and his beautiful girlfriend. The movie star looking guy was playing chess against an old man.
Jude stared at the chess players a moment, not quite believing.
Jude went into the coffee shop and a waitress asked if he wanted a cup of coffee. He gave her a tip and sat and watched the chess game unfold. He could tell that Hollywood was good and the old man not so much.
The old man said to Hollywood, “I’ll get my government check so I can pay you.”
Hollywood said, “Well, you have to cash the check now, old man.”
Jude interrupted: “Excuse me, sir, you’re going to play for how much?”
“Maybe twenty,” said Hollywood, “maybe thirty. Maybe a hundred. Whatever he’ll do.”
Jude turned to the old man. “And you’re going to get a check? Why don’t you just, um … let me see here … Well, listen, would you like for me to play this man?”
“Are you really good? Can you beat him?”
“I’m the best you’ve ever seen.”
Jude played Hollywood with the $15 he had, and the old man matched. After losing that game, Hollywood wanted to play for a hundred. “You’re really not that good.”
Jude walked over to the coffee shop’s owner. “My name is Jude Acers. I’m a world famous player. This man wants to play me for a hundred dollars. Would you like to give me the money—I’ll give it back to you with interest, whatever you want to do?”
The owner agreed.
Jude put the $100 on the table and “played just straight theory.”
After Jude won, he gave the owner $80 of the winnings and kept $20. He took another look at Hollywood and his beautiful girlfriend, noticed an open air convertible on the street and assumed it belonged to Hollywood.
As he got up to leave the coffee shop, Jude thought, “I own the world. They’ve got nothing.”
And then I go out, back toward the bus station. I turned around for a moment. And the waitress was still there (in the window) with a coffee cup. And she said, ‘You’re really good, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Ma’am, I am.’ All the people in the restaurant were lined up at the windows watching me walk across the street.
* * *
Jude’s El Paso story reminded me of another one I heard a bluesman tell at the Delta Blues Festival in Greenville, Mississippi in 1990 about losing his harmonica as a young man. He said he got another one that “only God can take away,” then unleashed an astonishing harmonica solo, only to reveal he produced the the sound with his hands, mouth, and microphone. There was no harmonica.
As Jude said,
I have this delight in chess, and I study chess, and it can never be taken away.